Throughout our Semester at Sea voyage, Sam and I visited several places that were somber and intense. Elmina slave dungeons in Ghana. The Ganges river at Varanasi. Dachau concentration camp in Germany. The Khmer Rouge killing fields of Cambodia. Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi. The Shoes on the Danube Memorial in Budapest.
While travel can be about relaxation and vacation, travel can also be about growth and learning. In my experience, the moments of travel that are most personally impactful are the moments that make me feel uncomfortable, and challenge me to reflect on what I am experiencing more intentionally.
Many of the challenging and uncomfortable moments I’ve had while traveling are associated with somber places which some people call “dark tourism”. Dark tourism can be defined as traveling to historic sites associated with death, natural disasters, violence, tragedy and/or crimes against humanity.
Dark tourism experiences can be intense and heavy, often carrying memories of terrible moments in human history. There is a palpable energy that stays with you after visiting a place like the Khmer Rouge killing fields, weighing heavy on your heart. The visit makes you feel sad, but also reflective.
Reflecting is a natural outcome of dark tourism because you simply cannot avoid the acknowledgement of feelings that bubble up from visiting these places. Even the most emotionally obtuse of visitors will feel impacted upon seeing the crematoriums at Dachau or the solitary confinement cells at Ho Lao, and those feelings can have a deep, impactful ramifications that stay with you for days or weeks afterwards.
Dark tourism experiences can shift mindsets, challenge assumptions and maybe even reverse prejudices — which inherently makes them important.
Dark tourism sites also help visitors to internalize the scale and scope of pivotal moments in human history. While you can certainly read about the history and feel impacted by what you are learning, there is a depth and breadth of empathy that comes from visiting memorials in person. You feel the energy and intensity when you visit these sites, which makes the history, impact, and lessons learned far more real.
To contextualize, let’s talk about my recent experience visiting Elmina Slave Dungeon in Ghana. For the past few years, I have been attempting to learn as much as I can about anti-black racism, white supremacy and institutionalized racial disenfranchisement to better understand how my white identity currently and historically impacts people of color. As I stood beneath the door of no return where thousands of African people took their last breath on the continent before being forcibly sent across the Atlantic ocean to a life of slavery, I internalized what I had been learning about racism, and my relation to it, in a different way than I had through reading. The feeling of empathy overcame me as I felt the intense fear and the ruined families and the horrific conditions African people endured, all of which shaped my understanding of slavery in a new, more personal way.
The final reason why I think it is important to visit somber places is to remember what happened and to appreciate how life has changed afterwards. Take for example the shoes on the Danube memorial in Budapest. It sits on the exact spot where Nazis ordered Jews to take off their shoes before being shot and their bodies left to float down the Danube river. Today, the memorial sits along a bike path on the Pest side of the river. It is a remarkably beautiful location and the memorial is subtle, to the point that you might not notice it if you didn’t know it was there.
Following the end of tragedies and darkness, society begins to progress forward and life continues. Humans are remarkably capable of adaptation in post-conflict eras, and many of these sobering places have become normalized. You see how life continues to flow around this darkness as things begin to feel safe for people again. Without the poignant reminders of our dark past, the tragedies might be forgotten. It can be easier to forget than to face the intensity. It is our responsibility as travelers and stewards of our shared human history to remember.
Somber places are important historical markers that should be visited by considerate and well-intentioned visitors because they can be deeply impactful when experienced in a thoughtful way. During my various visits, I found that most dark tourists behave respectfully, using the experience as a moment to reflect and learn about the importance of these sites —which I believe is the appropriate intention.
But in the age of social media and selfies, it shouldn’t be surprising that some visitors cannot behave properly or appropriately while visiting intense places. I had one young woman say to me as we rode to Varanasi at sunrise “I don’t think my visit here will feel complete unless we see a dead body floating in the river.” Voyeuristic impulses are real and every few weeks, the internet rightfully shames the latest bad traveler’s behavior. Recently, it has been visitors flocking to the ruins of Chernobyl following the HBO series to take insensitive photos of the wreckage.
An important question to ask yourself before visiting a dark tourism site is always “What is my intention with this visit?” Are you there to learn and reflect or are you there to capture it as an Instagramming voyeur?
For me, I feel uncomfortable with photography in somber places. It is challenging to capture a place that has seen so much intensity, and in the era of social media, there is SO much harm that can come from inappropriately photographing these kind of places, so I think it is best to largely avoid photography. If I do take a photo of my experience, I don’t prominently feature people, especially myself, and instead focus on the site and the history. These are not the kind of travel experiences that you’ll plaster on your Instagram feed, but rather, the experiences that will stay with you in your heart and mind.
The solemn travel experiences listed above stand out in my mind not because I found them particularly enjoyable, but because they made me feel something intensely. It is hard to not empathize with the desperate ways Jews had to survive during WWII as you walk through the Anne Frank Huis, and you can’t ignore the fragility of life and death as you watch funeral pyres burn on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. You don’t visit somber places for enjoyment or pleasure. You visit them to remember and to learn, and hopefully, to change.
All photos my own except “Shoes on the Danube Bank” by Albert Lugosi is licensed under CC BY 2.0